by Tim Frank
Zachary fake-limped into the store where he worked wearing his crumpled company shirt, his name tag, and his new red balaclava. He ignored his customers’ penetrating glares and sly whispers and began stacking cage eggs.
His mate Treach, a kid with steel toe-capped shoes and a high-top fade, sidled up to Zachary and said, “Zee, what are you doing?”
“What?” Zachary said, now analysing a loaf of sourdough, trying to find a barcode.
“The balaclava. Take it off, you idiot.”
“Why?” Zachary said, bemused.
A security camera slowly swivelled towards the two young men and then lingered. Treach noticed and buried his head into a crate of cut-price sandwiches. He said, “They’re on to us Zach, I knew it. Take the fucking hat off while you got the chance.”
Soon enough the store’s crackling loudspeaker ordered Zachary to go to the manager’s office. Zachary reached under his mask, itched his nose and strode into the storage room where the office was located.
In the boss’s office the boy sat opposite his manager who had a face like a dried-out bar of soap. He leaned forward and balanced his elbows on his desk. He said, “We accept all colours and creeds in this supermarket, true, but I won’t allow political insurrection. So, take the balaclava off, right now.”
Zachary said, “No, I won’t, it’s just a hat. A nice warm hat.”
Zachary’s boss couldn’t legally do anything at that moment, so he let him off with a warning, but on the train home Treach dug Zachary out, “You’re frightening people Zee. Is this how you want to live your life, just to make a fashion statement?”
Other commuters had huddled together at the far end of the carriage as if Zachary was strapped to a bomb.
“Can everyone chill, please?!” Zachary finally flipped. “I’m not making any statements; I’m no danger to anyone. I’m just wearing this hat because I like it.”
The crowd took another step back.
That night walking through an underpass near his house two policemen confronted Zachary. It didn’t take long before they had pinned him face down against the ground.
One of the officers placed his foot on Zachary’s neck and yanked the balaclava off the boy’s head. Tears stained Zachary’s clean-shaven cheeks.
“Honestly, I was expecting more, kid,” said an officer.
“Give it back,” said Zachary defiantly.
The officers pushed him back onto his arse and pocketed the hat. As they strolled away their laughter fluttered around the arched underpass along with their fading footsteps.
Zachary skulked home — cheek bruised and swollen from being pressed against the cold asphalt. He ordered a new balaclava on his phone — a blue one this time, but basically the same extra-large hat made of fleece.
Despite its drawbacks Zachary couldn’t believe he hadn’t discovered the balaclava earlier. He had always felt pressured by his family to bottle up his feelings —suppress his stormy moods, stifle his anger. He was a wild child — always bullying his siblings with cruel, sometimes violent games, and when his parents tried to discipline him, he’d smash everything up. But now he could sneer, rage, cry, and express himself however he pleased.
Of course, people might say he was trapped behind a soulless blank façade, but in fact, he had never felt so free. He was living in a snug dreamworld and was prepared for anything the world had to throw at him. He had found his sweet spot.
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in Wrongdoing Magazine, Eunoia Review, The Metaworker, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Menacing Hedge, Maudlin House and elsewhere.
He is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal and lives with his wife in North London, England.